Sicily by Bike
Touring Sicily and Malta just got easier. Still hot and hilly but easier to organise because the two islands have combined to launch a network of over 1000 km of routes through 5 southern Sicilian provinces and the Maltese Islands linked to appointed “BikeHotels” with parking and maintenance facilities.
It’s called SIBIT standing for “Sustainable Interregional Bike Tourism!” and has been in development since 2007. You can combine cycling on empty country roads and paths, stiff climbs to hill top towns, and well preserved ancient and medieval culture with superb Mediterranean food.
I joined the route in central Sicily in the ancient town of Caltanissetta having been driven from Palermo Airport. But at 1pm on a weekday, it was bad timing. Siesta lasts 5 hours. Everything is closed, streets deserted apart from small groups of old men hanging around in the squares or playing cards in the park. I stayed at one of the designated Bikehotels which provide secure storage areas and maintenance facilities including tools. This was the Hotel Plaza in the centre of Caltanissetta. If you are planning an early start this is the hotel for you. Lots of marble floors and loud Sicilian voices mean you won’t need an alarm call.
Caltanissetta is actually off the main Sibit route which mainly follows the south coast of Sicily around to Syracuse. Each of Sicily’s 5 southern provinces have then created their own sub routes inland to take you around the highlights of their area. Maps are provided or are downloadable. These important because the number of signposts varies by province. You will probably end up getting lost at some stage but that’s part of the fun and you’ll end up seeing something unique you otherwise wouldn’t have.
My first ride was mainly downhill since Caltanisetto, like most of the old towns in Sicily is built on a hill for defensive purposes. You’ll find out when you have to ride the steep climbs to get to them. I was in a group with a local bike guide who promptly took us off the course entirely and into a National Park, the Monte Capodarso e Valle dell’Imera Meridionale. First though we had to visit the local museum, a fantastic new building with exhibits dating back 6000 years. If you like old pots and pans this is the place for you. The surrounding rugged mountain area and valley has been occupied since 12,000 BC. It hadn’t changed much.
The advantage of riding on the park trails, and other rural areas, in April, when I was there, (besides it not being too hot), was the abundance of colourful flowering wild plants. Not just in the fields and hedgerows but all over the underused paths. You just don’t get that in the UK’s over developed, neat, pesticide-treated rural landscape anymore. There will be more sun and less colour in mid-summer when temperatures can hit 40 degrees and the landscape is beige and yellow.
Back onto the main route and into Raguso province. Raguso (the town) Modica, and Scicli are World Heritage sites because of the profusion of baroque architecture examples. Settlements around Scilcli date back to 15,000 BC and the town itself to 300BC by the Sicels, hence “Sicily”.
Off the official route up a steep 900m climb is the small hilltop town of Chiaramonte Gulfi with panoramic views over the valley below, the Med to the South and Mount Etna to the north. There is a good Bike Hotel, the Antica Stazione here but it’s another 4 miles out of town. Uphill.
Ragusa, the town, rather than the province is, split into the new town built higher up the steep Valle dei Ponti after an earthquake partly destroyed the old town, further down the valley, in 1693. The baroque architecture dates from this rebuilding period. You can ride down part of the ravine separating the towns actually through some of the catacombs below the town, now used, in the summer, for cooling off and theatre performances. In the new town you can ride up to the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista across 17th century bridges but the climbing the steep narrow streets of the old town after the fast descent down the valley is more interesting. There are very few cars, the streets are too narrow, and no signs or pattern. But you’ll know where you are roughly, because the main options are either up or down. Whichever route you take, you’ll end up suddenly emerging, unexpected into one of the wide plazas in front of an impressive baroque church.
From Raguso it was a mostly downhill route towards the coastal plain. Casato Licitra is an ideal rural bike hotel stop here - it has a pool.
We had a guide for part of this trip which enabled us to go off road through the ancient, empty agricultural landscape. Empty apart from a small group of wild dogs that is. Be careful in this area, they have been known to attack people although this is rare and the ones I saw were not as brazen as the average London urban fox.
Rejoining the main Sibit route means you won’t be very far from an old coastal town or ….. a beach, ideal after a long hot ride during the day. In the middle of summer you’ll be glad of the refreshing breeze and a dip in the ocean after the intense heat inland.
Heading back inland into Syracusa province you can visit the baroque city of Noto rebuilt to a plan after the 1693 earthquake. Lots of large scale religious buildings and palaces. Or, if you are all Baroqued out by now, pick your own route closer to the coast and visit the stunning Vendicari Nature Reserve for beaches, lagoons, rocky coves and the wildlife, mainly birds, including flamingos.
North of here Syracuse, the city, and its old part, Ortigo was the perfect urban stop after several days backroads riding. Stay in town if you can. The bike hotel is the Sorella Luna: WWW.SORELLALUNASRL.IT
Syracuse, a Greek city formed 2,700 years ago was one of the most important ancient cities. There are Greek (and Roman) amphitheatres, and architecture alongside medieval buildings. It being a weekend many of these ancient buildings, squares and courtyards were taken over by young, noisy but well behaved partying Sicilians turning it into a living museum. Worth a day cycling around it and stopping to soak up the history – Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running down the street, the natural harbour where the locals trapped and destroyed the Athenian navy, the greatest ancient fleet ever assembled, by blocking the congested harbour with chains. It was like touring the set of an epic Hollywood sword and sandal film.
You can choose to stay in Sicily longer and explore more of the extensive SIBIT routes or jump on the ferry to Malta. It’s a fast modern regular service from Pozallo in the south and takes about 2 hours bringing you into Valletta past the port’s impressive fortifications. Malta, is more manageable, the route signage is far better but it’s much more built up and options for road bikes are limited.
The 2 SIBIT routes take you to the more rural areas where you’ll also find the historical and geographical attractions and fantastic views from the cliff tops. Hagar Qim, ancient temples over looking the sea predating Stonehenge are a must and just off the route. But if you are planning to visit the Blue Grotto (Il-Hnejja), even though it looks like it’s just off the main route, it’s a steep 10 minute descent followed by an hour’s climb back up.
You could do the two Malta routes in a day. Or two. And then catch the short ferry across to Gozo.
This island is surprisingly different to Malta. More rugged, more vegetation but less traffic and urban areas. It’s a centre for activity sports from diving to rock climbing and kayaking. It’s also mountain bike country and roads again. You can follow the SIBIT route or just go where you feel like. It’s a small island and the capital, Victoria sits on a hill in the middle visible from most parts of the island so you’ll always have an idea where you are.
Gozitans are very religious so every hilltop village you climb will have a big church on top. The biggest, Xewkija, has a dome larger than St Paul’s.
There is some spectacular coastal riding north of Marsalforn Bay through soft rock cliffs that have been shaped by wind and sand into a lunar landscape. Roman salt pans spread out around the path some of them still in use today.
If you’ve ridden the whole (or most) of the SIBIT route around Sicily then Malta and finally into Gozo then you could treat yourself to a final stay at the only Five star hotel on the Maltese Islands, just outside Victoria on Gozo, the Kempinski. Alternatively the perfectly located Calypso Hotel in Marsalforn Bay does have a five star bike maintenance area.
I was there in April when conditions were perfect – no rain, 20 degrees, some cloud cover, although much cooler at night. If you go in the high summer months, then early starts are recommended to avoid the 40 degree peaks. You’d also be more likely to understand the need for a 5 hour siesta!
Beer: 2-4 Euros Small Black Stain in bottom of cup: 80c to 1 euro Weather: Hot Rainfall: Zero Road Signs: Malta Some, Sicily Sparse Side of road to ride on: Malta Right, Sicily Wrong
ROAD V MOUNTAIN BIKE, HIRE V BRING You can choose both but your routes will be limited on a road bike especially in Malta and Gozo and if you wanted to get into deepest rural Sicily. Hybrids are fine. Hiring is straightforward. There are a host of suppliers but these will be almost always mountain bikes. You can also hire guides at the same places. If you are on holiday anyway then you could choose to just spend part of that time riding by hiring a bike with or without guides. Or join an organised group ride. Hire and tours: Sicily www.crilutravel.it www.centrocicloturisticosiciliano.com www.plantbikecomiso.com www.hyblabike.com www.cycleclassictours.com (also for road bike hire) www.exodus.co.uk (also for self guided tours) www.trippuzzle.com Malta and Gozo www.mcadventure.com.mt www.gozoadventures.com
Maps, guides and Bike Hotels www.medinbike.com